Anytime a show pulls off as delightfully bawdy, indulgently violent, dizzyingly ridiculous a first season as Hulu’s The Great did, one naturally worries: Will the sequel be as good? Will more Pomeranians be tossed off balconies? Will more huzzahs be shouted? Will Nicholas Hoult once again unironically utter the wrong pronunciation of “touche”?
The answer to all is, thankfully, yes. (Well, except for the Pomeranians. All dogs are safe this time around.)
Season two of creator Tony McNamara’s not-entirely-accurate historical comedy picks up four months after a now heavily pregnant Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) attempted coup. Her husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult) has fortified a wing of the palace where chosen members of his court snack on fennel seed mousse and examine each other’s genitals while she plots to smoke him out with Molotov cocktails and ruthless wit.
The stand-off doesn’t last long — though it does take an exciting turn when Peter is forced to flee the palace and dine on river rats while under siege — but those hoping that Catherine, now firmly in power with both the military and church on her side, might finally relieve the former monarch of his head will be disappointed. Her vision of a new Russia is one built on ideals and progress, not bloodshed. Of course, that opens the door for Peter and his closest allies to launch their own stealthier version of political warfare from inside the castle walls, a tension-filled tug-of-war that seriously cramps Catherine’s plans to remake the country in her more liberal image.
Overthrowing a bloodthirsty tyrant with mommy issues is all fun and games and decapitated heads and dead lovers until one realizes that actually running a country is infinitely more difficult than pretending to laugh at your idiotic husband’s vapid jokes.
What’s worse? Catherine had a deadline looming over her planned overhaul – one year until the parasite she’s hosting in her womb, a thing she calls “the baby,” bursts free and challenges her right to the throne. It’s that threat of impending motherhood that pushes Fanning to deliver one of the best comedic performances we’ve seen on screen all year.
As a newly crowned Catherine the Great, she flits between an anxiety-riddled woman with conflicting feelings of apathy and affection for the thing growing inside her, and a visionary leader fighting against the stifling traditionalism of her court. She’s vicious ambition and the euphoric dream of a Russian utopia, all wrapped within the restricting corset of womanhood. Her advisors – friends like Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) and General Velementov (Douglas Hodge) quietly ruminate on how they could do a better job of stewarding the country while questioning the hormonal mood swings that accompany her “condition.” Her husband, a pesky cockroach with a penchant for throwing lavish parties and entertaining people with his doltish charisma, might soon find a way to ingratiate himself back to power. Her dreams of a more welcoming, educated, open-minded society are dying before they’ve even come to fruition and there’s a restless desperation behind Fanning’s quieter moments on screen that underscores that. Catherine’s never had more power, and her situation has never been more perilous.
But look, it’s not all doom and gloom and the odd stabbing death or two. McNamara’s script is filled with the same ridiculous humor and cutting commentary that made the show’s first season so damn fun to watch. The joy comes in realizing that both Catherine and Peter are two sides of the same monstrous, privileged coin. Hoult has the most fun playing that on-screen, taking Peter on a journey of self-realization that may end with the monarch bettering himself, but then again, probably not. He dons outrageous costumes with childlike glee, he see-saws between punishingly cruel outbursts and pitiful bouts of loneliness. More than ever, we come to understand how terrible his childhood was and how that trauma manifests in some of his worst personality traits. Similarly, unchecked authority is slowly starting to corrupt the best of Catherine. She’s always been vain, so sure of her own destiny that she destabilized a country to see it fulfilled, but that arrogance was masked by her good intentions, her grand plans for equality and freedom of religion and civility at court. Now that she’s actually implementing her vision and discovering all of the unexpected ways it clashes with the ingrained culture of her cadre of nobles, she’s less enlightened revolutionary, more patronizing despot.
A surprise appearance by Gillian Anderson midway through the season shakes up the sedimented status quo a bit as do the bigger roles for Catherine’s female cohort – Phoebe Fox’s Marial and Belinda Bromilow’s Aunt Elizabeth chew every scene they’re in, leaving us wanting for more. But this is Fanning’s show, and she delivers the best line readings, shouldering the responsibility of presenting Catherine as both admirably ambitious and disturbingly out-of-her-depth, with ease.
One could argue the second shot of vodka always goes down smoother. The same can be said for season two of The Great.